a vital voice from the heart of UK guitar music

16 mins read
Militarie Gun (2023)

A midday stage time on the Sunday afternoon of a festival is no artist’s idea of a perfect scenario. But on the last day of Reading Festival 2023, as an unseasonably cold wind whips against the side of the Festival Republic tent and a sea of tired, hungover eyes quiver gently, English Teacher defy circumstance to deliver a low-key triumph of a performance. Throughout closer ‘A55’, vocalist Lily Fontaine comes across like the eye of a storm – a deceptive calm amidst a flurry of jagged melodies. She pares a near-capacity crowd to one, settling her gaze on a young fan bellowing the lyrics atop a friend’s shoulders. “I see everything in skits / I see everything and more,” Fontaine sings, a faint note of wonder in her voice. “And I want more.

After guitarist Lewis Whiting sets down his instrument, he extends a hand to Fontaine, and the pair turn a hug into a gentle sway before their bandmates – drummer Douglas Frost and bassist Nicholas Eden – walk to the front of the stage to join the embrace. The audience breaks into applause before them. This brief moment of intimacy reflects their shared bond: four best friends continuing to reach new heights, all while exuding a shy gratitude towards the fact that they made it here in the first place.

English Teacher on The Cover of NME. Credit: Andy Ford for NME

48 hours later, NME meets English Teacher in a charming, if sleepy-looking Irish pub in north London. Reruns of Antiques Roadshow play on a tinny-sounding TV in the corner of the empty front room. “This is the type of quiet we need right now,” says Frost, laughing. Pints of alcohol-free Guinness and glasses of white wine are ordered; notes are compared on a creeping tiredness that has built up over close-packed festival dates at Green Man and Reading & Leeds. Whiting, meanwhile, takes swigs from a portable flask of tea.

A fortnight before they hit Reading Festival, the band unveiled ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’, their first single via Island Records, home to The Last Dinner Party and FLO. With references to Fontaine’s hometown of Colne, alongside Northern forebear Charlotte Brontë, the propulsive track has become a comforting presence amid the big life changes the band have weathered in recent months. Having started out on indie label Nice Swan [The Rills, Sprints], signing to a major has been a “fairly overwhelming” process, says Whiting, noting that the band were scouted off the strength of their live show. “There’s a lot of cooks involved in what we do now. It’s like a big soup,” he says. “We’re swirling in the cauldron of the music industry!”

‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ was written when the band, having met as students at Leeds Conservatoire, started out as dream-pop group Frank in 2018, before they reincarnated into English Teacher with their current lineup. The song was then initially released in June 2020, before recently being reworked to reflect a whole new swath of influences, from psychedelia to wobbly art-punk – it’s a bold, rhythmic revamp. “The song truly feels like the start of a new era for us,” says Whiting. “It’s amazing to have all these people behind us but it is quite jarring; it’s been a mad two years. It’s easy to forget how quickly all of this has happened.” There’s a brief pause, before Douglas chimes in: “The imposter syndrome is strong.”

“The moment you start second-guessing yourselves, that’s when you crumble” – Lewis Whiting

As a lyricist, Fontaine makes striking use of this collective anxiety, blessed with an ability to establish concrete worlds inside literary pop. 2022 debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ was the sound of being a young adult in a post-pandemic UK: frustrated and burnt-out, but also determined and stoic; keeping your fingers crossed for better days ahead. It placed various ephemera (watery tequila, pool tables, supermarket trolleys) in micro-detail while also expressing a real romantic confidence. Fontaine’s songs sound as though she has spent hours eavesdropping on the pubs and student halls of Leeds; short stories that move from nostalgia and insecurity to pulsing desperation in a beat. They’re both tender and completely unflinching at once.

The band take it in turns to describe how it was Fontaine’s quiet magnetism – which stands out in a UK guitar scene saturated with undistinguished post-punk acts – seemed to lift Whiting, Frost and Eden out of a shared “jadedness” towards the industry. “Seeing Lily grow in confidence, particularly when she’s on stage, has been amazing,” says Whiting. “It makes us all really happy.” He takes a breath, and continues. “There’s been a shared understanding, too, that we have had to learn how to trust our own instincts. We’re proud we know that. The moment you start second-guessing yourselves, that’s when you crumble.”

English Teacher (2023) by Andy Ford
Credit: Andy Ford for NME

Having only played their first “official” gigs as English Teacher in socially-distant settings in the summer of 2020, mere weeks after that first, long, desolate period of lockdown, the band feel as though their ascent has been fast and steep – to the point where they almost don’t trust it. Their reality only started to sink in, they say, when they performed at Glastonbury two years later, having made the festival’s Emerging Talent Competition shortlist, an initiative that has previously championed the likes of Declan McKenna and Prima Queen. The set was “a welcome reminder of how memorable and inspiring a truly brilliant early-doors festival performance can be,” said NME at the time.

“Performing at Glastonbury made us feel more confident in ourselves,” explains Frost. “But it was weird to go into performing not long after lockdown; I’d just spent years finishing my degree thinking I was going to become a nurse. I had completely separated myself from playing live until that point, so it felt like a fresh lease of life returning to the stage. It was almost like we were reforming as a band.”

Fontaine concurs: “It was almost like I had to re-learn how to be a performer. We didn’t assume that the band was over before then; we had played a lot of shows in Leeds before the pandemic – yet they were all small. People assume we went straight to the bigger stages, but so much changed for us during that gap [of lockdown].” Eden, who has sat in silence until this point in the interview, suddenly interjects: “I’m so glad that break happened. I was so lost. So lost.”

“We should always be looking out for each other, it’s that simple” – Lily Fontaine

One word that comes up time and time again this afternoon is “lucky”. Frost rarely says the word “career” without employing air quotes, while Whiting is brutally honest about the financial hardships the band have previously suffered: from once having to sleep in a train station after a tour van broke down, to “barely being able to break-even” while on the road. Fontaine, meanwhile, says that while their success has been rewarding, there has also been “a lack of understanding” from critics when it comes to the subject matter of the music itself. She alludes to this on recent single ‘A Song About Love’: “Say I’m all ‘kitchen sink’ / Instead of you, I do the washing up.” She adds: “My music isn’t observational comedy, or solely about everyday life. I spend a lot of time thinking about conveying how I feel.”

Contending with her place as a mixed-race woman in a predominantly white space has also been a source of an apprehension for Fontaine, she says – a feeling that she vocalised on the band’s debut single proper, 2021’s searing ‘R&B’. “There are times when I still worry about how we are viewed as a band,” she begins, gently rubbing a Donnie Darko-inspired tattoo on her forearm as she speaks. “I always used to think about how we started to gain attention for our music around the same time as the George Floyd protests, and I was worried that people thought that the only reason we were getting any support was because I’m not white. I know that the talent is there – we’re not just a diversity pick. I had to unlearn that previous mindset.”

English Teacher (2023) by Andy Ford
Credit: Andy Ford for NME

What has that process of unlearning been like? “It’s still happening. I have always just wanted to be taken seriously by tastemakers and people in the industry. That’s all I ask,” she notes. Fontaine goes on to describe how, whenever she struggles with these thoughts, she remembers that she wouldn’t have started a band were it not for wanting to overcome her anxieties.

Fontaine recognises the clear-eyed intention required to move forward, too. Her interest in social causes – particularly those related to a lack of resource and accessibility across the British music industry – run through our conversation. Earlier this year, she spoke to NME about the “invaluable” exposure BBC Introducing airplay can offer emerging artists, in light of ongoing talks to merge 21 of the network’s individual local radio shows. Today, she and the rest of the band continue to voice their support for the new, if long overdue initiatives to uplift acts based outside of the capital, from the Leeds-based EMI North label to the recently-announced plans for a new branch of the prestigious BRIT School in Bradford.“We should always be looking out for each other, it’s that simple,” adds Fontaine.

But she could easily be talking about English Teacher’s own dynamic, too. An hour after we first meet, the room feels calmer: visible nerves start to dissipate as talk turns to their forthcoming debut album, which is expected to land next year following a UK headline tour this October. Without naming anyone in particular, Fontaine says that she’s “incredibly proud” of a bandmate who has held their role despite living with autism and its pronounced rates of anxiety; Whiting is keen to stress that the excitement of working on new music together has “massively” strengthened the group’s bond.

“I feel like the next set of songs will truly reflect where we are now,” he continues. “We don’t want to sit within one sound; there’s some huge-sounding ballads coming up. We’ve got a point to prove.” The rest of the table fiercely nods in agreement. “We’re in a new era!”, Fontaine and Frost say at the same time, punctuating a moment of vulnerability with laughter. Their response, almost unknowingly, illuminates why English Teacher’s friendship has endured despite everything it has been put through.

English Teacher’s new single ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ is out now via Island Records. The band will embark tour the UK this autumn, with tickets and further information available.

Listen to English Teacher’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Writer: Sophie Williams
Photographer: Andy Ford
Label/Mgmt: Island Records

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